trump falsehoods
Reading Time: 5 minutes Caricature of U.S. President Donald Trump. (DonkeyHotey, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The American news media are sagging under the weight of the Trump administration’s daily avalanche of provable lies made heavier by supporters’ apparently absolute inability to sift truth from untruth.

trump falsehoods
Caricature of U.S. President Donald Trump. (DonkeyHotey, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I mean, how can news organizations effectively inform Americans about what’s actually going on in their government and country if roughly a third of the electorate can’t distinguish shit from Shinola? Or friend from foe?

I’m not just being malicious and mean-spirited here. It’s a manifestly reasonable question.

A lie by any other name

Mr. Trump’s long and false insistence that his predecessor Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and his former press secretary Sean Spicer’s famously false claim that Trump’s inaugural crowed “was the largest in history, period” were just two provable misrepresentations of reality among more than 4,000 lies (they’ve actually been counted) told by this fun-house mirror of president.

Frankly, the president’s mendacity and chronic falsifying of reality doesn’t really bother me all that much anymore, now that I’ve figured out that this is how he fights his enemies, real and imagined, and keeps his slavish supplicants in line. It’s still awful, of course, but something I can now get my head part-way around.

What does still bother me is how the president continues to get away with it among the only people in existence, besides voters at ballot boxes, who can control his enfant terrible statements and behaviors that not only threaten the American republic but destabilize relationships with allies and disrupt the world order the United States itself helped usher in with good intentions after World War II. I’m talking about the Republican-led Congress. Where in the hell, I ask, is the cacophony of outrage we should expect from the supposedly knowledgeable, well-educated, rational elite who are supposed to enact our laws and serve as a powerful check on presidential overreach, incompetence and, should it ever occur, craziness? As if, right?

GOP-led Congress AWOL

Virtually the entire congressional GOP is AWOL, save an ineffectual sprinkling of mildly protesting pols, lame ducks who have decided not to campaign again and so have nothing to lose anyway. It’s not honorable or revealing of principle or character, but I get the self-serving realpolitic of it: they’re rendered cowards by their lust to retain power and fear of pissing off their largely Trump-fawning, voting constituents.

But what has really completely baffled me is how a third of the country — and more than 80 percent of Republicans — could not only still be behind this very apparent bad joke of a president but almost worshipfully.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

However, a potentially compelling answer came to me like a thunderbolt yesterday in a comment by one of the readers of this blog, who casually mentioned a classic psychological tendency heretofore unknown to me (thanks, ursisterstoy): the “Dunning–Kruger effect.”

This explanation works well if we understand that a vast proportion of Trump supporters are aggrieved under-educated underachievers who never made much money. Among them are a disproportionate tribe of evangelicals and white supremacists — in other words, people whose common-sense reasoning skills and general cognitive competence are in question. After all, running around trying to convince people to believe in invisible beings, or accepting the idea that white skin bestows some kind of innate universal superiority make very little sense in reality.

The Dunning–Kruger effect posits a cognitive bias where people of low ability hold an erroneous sense of personal superiority, and they “mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is,” psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote in a 1999 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Dunning and Kruger further explain in the study, titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”:

“The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.”

Or presumably the actual competence or incompetence of others, much less others’ motives, honesty or character.

Elite cognitive bias

Interestingly, according to the researchers, high-ability people often operate with a different cognitive bias, causing them to “incorrectly assume that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for other people.”

So, low-ability people tend to misperceive their own competence, while high-ability people misperceive others’.

This tendency seems to have led at the moment to a perfect storm of misperceptions in American politics. We have a clearly superior-feeling president who believes his genius is self-evident and, thus, should be to everyone. And we have a huge chunk of the electorate who think, erroneously, they are smart enough to know that the president is as big a genius as he says.

If the Dunning-Kruger effect is real, and the Trumpian universe seems to fit neatly into its hypotheses, we are all in big trouble.

The noose tightens

And so it seems. As the president continues to lie, many people close to him continue to be investigated for federal crimes or pleading guilty to them, and Special Council Robert Mueller’s noose appears to be tightening around what the president knew and when he knew it regarding potential conspiracies with Russian agents and the documented Russian cyber-attack on the 2016 election that put Trump in the White House.

Meanwhile President Trump continuously gaslights all Americans but — and this is telling — only his cognitively biased supporters are buying it hook, line and sinker. The rest of us see the lie clearly.

The problem is that while the president’s congressional supporters, who certainly realize the potential democracy-destroying mendacities they are publicly supporting and who presumably have no such cognitive bias, are complicit in this dangerous presidential charade.

Meanwhile the president illusively thinks he’s got it covered.

Other papers on psychological investigations, such as “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence” in 2003, indicate that overblown self-assessments result from a “person’s ignorance of a given activity’s standards of performance.”

In the abstract to this paper, the researchers, who included Dunning and Kreuger, noted that people can be “blissfully unaware” of their deficiencies in competence:

“This lack of awareness arises because poor performers are doubly cursed: Their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them. People base their perceptions of performance, in part, on their preconceived notions about their skills. Because these notions often do not correlate with objective performance, they can lead people to make judgments about their performance that have little to do with actual accomplishment.”

He’s got ‘everything figured out’

This certainly pertains to President Trump, who, his advisers have told news media, after little more than a year and with zero political experience going in, believes “he’s got everything figured out” in his new job as leader of the free world.

Yet the dunderheaded mistakes he seems to be making — e.g., launching tweets that clearly show him trying to obstruct a federal investigation he believes is targeting himself, etc. — indicate in many critical respects he has no idea what he’s doing or what is required.

For example, President Trump curiously proclaimed after a brief one-on-one meeting with the leader of North Korea that our decades-long, existentially dangerous conflict with North Korea had been solved by his amazing diplomatic skill. He announced that Americas could now breathe a sigh of relief and sleep soundly at night; days later it became evident nothing whatsoever had been solved.

If this isn’t the Dunning-Kruger effect in action, I don’t know what is. Except Donald Trump is clearly high-ability enough to know better.

Or so he says.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...